Novelist Arnold Bennett once wrote, “I myself have seen it empty buildings that had been full; and I know that it will scatter a crowd more quickly than a hose-pipe, hornets, or the rumour of plague. Even to murmur it is to incur solitude, probably disdain, and possibly starvation, as historical examples show. That word is poetry.”
Is poetry really that bad? Not at all. In fact, good aviation poetry can help us interpret the more sublime aspects of our aviation experience.
Poetry is the bridge between literature and music. It’s art. As with all true art, it has the interpretative power to awaken within us strong emotions. The traditional poet accomplishes this by working within the constraints of meter and rhyme. He leverages words and symbolic meaning to shape the contours of a message that targets both the heart and the head. Our everyday aviation experience can become richer and more meaningful when the aviation poet helps us interpret what we see, what we feel, and what we hear.
Do you remember the last time you looked up to locate the sound of a lone single-engine airplane in transit? In that instant, you surrendered yourself to reverie as you wondered about the person behind the controls and the destination of the machine. This is how poet Sarah Churchill (Winston’s daughter) expresses similar emotions in the first 10 lines of a poem titled, The Bombers.
Whenever I see them ride on high,
Gleaming and proud in the morning sky,
Or lying awake in bed at night,
I hear them pass on their outward flight;
I feel the mass of metal and guns,
Delicate instruments, deadweight tons,
Awkward, slow, bomb racks full,
Straining away from downward pull,
Straining away from home and base,
And try to see the pilot’s face…
Sarah speaks of the ease with which we can release our terrestrial moorings and project our imagination into the cockpit of a wayward airplane. This poem reflects the sobering experience of war, but the message is eternal: I wonder what it’s like to walk in your shoes? You can’t help but empathize with the young pilot at the controls of this mighty war machine. You can almost feel him pulling aft on the yoke to leverage those wings for their full allotment of lift.
Another one of my favorite poems is titled, A Tribute to the Forgotten Mechanic. If you read the entire poem, you’ll feel a renewed respect for the person who handles your airplane’s pistons and plugs. Here are a few stanzas of a poem whose author remains unknown.
...But for each of these flying heroesthere were thousands of little renown,and these were the men who worked on the planesbut kept their feet on the ground.We all know the name of Lindbergh,and we’ve read of his flight of fame.But think, if you can, of his maintenance man,can you remember his name?And think of our wartime heroes,Gabreski, Jabara, and Scott.Can you tell me the names of their crew chief?A thousand to one you cannot....
Finally, poems can bring us pleasure by aiding our memory. Wordsworth wrote that it was his recollection of daffodils that filled his heart with pleasure as he lie on his couch in a vacant or pensive mood. Patrick J. Phillips’ (flyersprayer.com) wonderful poem, Solo, helps us remember the thrill of flying an airplane alone for the very first time. Here are three stanzas from Solo.
The earth rolls by beneath my wings,
My mind dwells not on other things,
For as my nose points towards the sky,
I can’t believe I’m going to fly....
Five hundred feet. It’s time to turn,
There is still so much I have to learn.
Ease the yoke and now the rudder,
The trick is not to make her shudder.
Thump! I’m down! It feels so good,
Nothing to it, I knew I could.
Take heart my friend and have a try,
For now I know that I can fly.
While aviation poetry serves us on many levels, we seldom read it for its factual content. We read it to see what the poet sees, to know what the poet knows. We read it to remember why some things are important. This is how poetry expands our minds and makes our aviation experience richer and more fulfilling.
So, stretch your dome,
By reading a poem.
Rod Machado is a CFII and aviation motivational speaker who flies a Cessna 150 in California.